Understanding synodality

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

Church governance is not about command and control. It’s about who we are and who we aspire to be as a Christian community, as the body of Christ. Since 2013, Pope Francis has been teaching this lesson in all that he does and says. Lately he’s been saying synodality just about every time he opens his mouth.

He knows it’s a risk, but even in 2013 in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), it was a risk he was willing to take.

“The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction,” he wrote.

If synodality does not trip lightly off the tongue of modern English speakers, perhaps we have been living too far removed from the life of the Church. In its official handbook for the two-year process of the 2023 Synod on Synodality, which begins on Oct. 17, the Holy See offers Catholics a catechism lesson on the true nature of the Church.

“Synodality denotes the particular style that qualifies the life and mission of the Church,” reads the Sept. 7 Vademecum (Latin for handbook or guide). “Synodality ought to be expressed in the Church’s ordinary way of living and working.”

It’s clear that Vatican officials are not talking about the usual synod of bishops — gatherings in Rome that fly under the radar and over the heads of many Catholics. But Canadian theologian Adam DeVille doesn’t think we quite get it, especially in the modern Church of North America.

“I get clergy and bishops saying, what is this thing? What does it mean?” DeVille, director of humanities and professor of theology and psychology at the University of St. Francis in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, US, told The Catholic Register.

Related article: Vatican releases “synod on synodality” preparatory documents

Synods have been held in the Church since the middle of the second century — that is, from about the year 150. The two-part Greek word: συν (meaning “with”) and όδός (meaning “path”) was a natural for a growing movement of the Mediterranean world that was known as “The Way.”

This combination of togetherness and moving forward is an “integral part of her (the Church’s) very nature,” reads the Vatican handbook.
The General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops defines the purpose of the next two years of consultation, dialogue and discernment with a fundamental question: “How does this journeying together take place today on different levels (from the local to the universal one) allowing the Church to proclaim the Gospel? And what steps is the Spirit inviting us to take in order to grow as a synodal Church?”

The answer to this two-part question won’t be found in any mere majority, but rather “by listening to one another, and especially to those at the margins,” the Vatican office for synods declared.

Canadian bishops have appointed five participants who will attend the synod’s opening celebrations — CCCB President and Archbishop of Winnipeg Richard Gagnon, Saint-Jerome and Mont-Laurier bishop and CCCB president-elect Raymond Poisson, Archdiocese of Vancouver chancellor Barbara Dowding, CCCB theology and social doctrine advisor Patrick Fletcher and Sr. Chantal Desmarais of the Sisters of Charity of Sainte-Marie.

Now that they’ve got their basic instructions from the Vatican, Canada’s bishops are ready for open dialogue and wide consultation, the CCCB Communications Service told The Catholic Register.

“The upcoming synod is very important in the life of the universal Church and during this initial phase, all people of God — laity, religious, clergy — will be called to engage and dialogue on the synodal journey,” CCCB spokesperson Lisa Gall wrote in an e-mail.

After an initial phase of consultation in dioceses, the CCCB will be ganged with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the continental phase of the synod.

Canadian dioceses have varying degrees of experience with synodal processes. As the Archdiocese of Halifax merged with the Diocese of Yarmouth, Archbishop Anthony Mancini led Nova Scotians through a two-year, synod-like consultation that ended in a far-reaching reorganization of parishes. The Archdiocese of Vancouver finished up a synod in 2006. Between 2016 and 2018 the Archdiocese of Winnipeg ran a synod under the title of “Established, Anointed, and Sent in Christ.” In 1998 the Archdiocese of Montreal courted headlines when 600 delegates voted 56.4 per cent in favour of ordaining women to the priesthood and 73.3 per cent in favour of ordaining women deacons.
DeVille points out that synodality may not be a comfortable fit for many in the Church hierarchy.

“Synodality means people in the Church have much greater decision-making power at all levels,” DeVille said. “That’s the starting premise I would go with.”

For DeVille, a more synodal Church would have to mean that parish councils aren’t merely mandatory, and they are far more than advisory. They could have a say in hiring and firing pastors and all parish personnel. They would set budgets.

Diocesan synods should meet annually with the bishop, not just to hear from the bishop but to have a meaningful say on diocesan budgets and priorities, said DeVille. When the bishop retires or dies, the synod would have the power to elect his successor.

If this sounds outlandish to modern Catholic ears, they should know that centralized, Vatican control over appointing bishops dates only from after the First Vatican Council in 1870. Through most of Church history, bishops were locally elected only to be later confirmed by the Pope.

Synods and synodality have long been the rule of the Church. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) mandated diocesan synods every year and provincial or metropolitan synods every three years. That was winnowed down to diocesan synods once every 10 years in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. By the time we get to the 1983 code, Canon 461 makes synods entirely dependent on the wishes of bishops and priests.

“The current system is a distortion — which I regard as a monopoly, whereby all significant decision-making power is in the hands of ordained clerics,” DeVille said, adding that the old, highly centralized way of doing things cannot survive the challenges the Church now faces.

“Well enough alone right now doesn’t exist. We’re in a situation of disaster in a lot of places and I think it’s going to get worse,” he said. “Well enough alone means continued decline as far as I can see. Well enough alone is a recipe for further stagnation and decline and disappearance of the Church in a lot of places.”

The abuse crisis, reconciliation with Indigenous people, widespread rejection of Church teaching on sexual ethics, an almost complete divorce between the Church and urban, educated women, ground lost to Evangelical and Pentacostal movements and internal Catholic and the polarization of Catholic culture wars has left Catholics without a voice in the public sphere, said DeVille.

“I don’t think bishops, especially, have realized just how completely shattered any authority they once had now is,” he said.

The Vatican clearly isn’t interested in making this synod an exercise in producing a teaching document.

“The purpose of this synod is not to produce more documents,” said the Vademecum. “Rather, it is intended to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts and restore strength to our hands for our common mission.”